THIS IS an excerpt from my new novel. It is the sequel to Zo (2008) and therefore the second book in the trilogy. Obviously, it is better understood if Zo is read first, but I will provide a quick sketch of events leading up to the sequel which will permit it to be read on its own. But that would still be like skipping 50,000 words of a story!
God bless . . .
In January 1938, Yuzunia lit the candles and incense again and we sang four or five carols. Then we walked out into the cold and went down the street together under stars that pierced the skin. Yuzy wrapped up in Ian, Zhanna in Nykola, Vasyl and I side by side, Vasyl busy with his cigarettes. It was as if we were on a stroll together back in Canada during a dark winter’s night. We passed a church with great silver domes.
“It is a wonder it is still standing,” said Yuzy.
Vasyl blew out thick smoke. “The Great Leader always plays a game with the Orthodox. He closes some churches, leaves others open. Shoots some priests, makes others archbishops. Says there is no God, reminds everyone he went to seminary. He cannot cut the Orthodox completely out of the state. Slava Isusu Khrystu still matters too much to far too many. Even he cannot kill them all. Then he would have no one to purge.”
Yuzy gave a short sharp laugh. “Oh, uncle, hush, even the domes of the church could be working for the NKVD.” She suddenly stopped walking.
“What is it?” asked Ian.
“Do you think the church is open? I would like to go inside.”
“Go inside? You?”
“Why not? We just sang carols to Khrystos.”
“You really want to go inside? I doubt the doors will be open. Let me see.”
Ian went quickly up the concrete steps, as if he were eager to fling open the heavenly gates. I could see the surprise on his face when the large door swung open easily. He put his head inside. Then he looked down at us. “There is someone in here. But the church is a wreck.”
We came up the stairs and followed Ian and Yuzy inside. It was cold and lit only by a few large ivory candles at the front of the sanctuary and they were almost finished, great congealed lumps of melted wax with tall orange flames. There were no crosses, no carpets, no chairs or pews, no stained glass – the windows had been nailed over with old grey boards. The ceiling was domed and still rich with ornate carving, but it was so dark with stains and cobwebs that sagged with dust you could scarcely see the detail. The floor, however, was swept clean.
All this I took in at a glance. What arrested my attention was not what was not there or the dirt on what was, but a large icon painted at the front of the church that looked over all with black lively eyes. Bullet holes chewed away one whole cheek and jaw and several had just missed the right eye. But it was Khrystos, who had once smiled ever so slightly at the people who gathered here, bringing a strong dark compassion and rich thick brew of life that was still obvious in the iconist’s work despite the assault of rifles and machine guns.
Ian spat. “The good work of the Bolsheviks. They have taken anything of value, probably melted down the gold and silver, bartered icons and the stained glass windows for rubles or American dollars, and shot up the Son of God for sport. I would not be surprised if the NKVD use this for a urinal or a killing room. There are patches of blood in the corner that have soaked into the wooden flooring.”
I was surprised by his vehemence. Yuzunia pinched her lips together and her eyes darkened, but she did not speak. We wandered about in the emptiness. Zhanna bent, one hand in Nykola’s, and picked up a sliver of emerald green glass. Vasyl stood in front of the bullet-scarred icon with his arms down in front of him, his hands folded over each other. He had removed the cigarette from his mouth and extinguished the burnt end with his fingers.
“Someone lit the candles,” said Nykola, “someone must be here.”
“Or was here,” I responded. “Or it could be an NKVD trap. Maybe they are lurking somewhere inside ready to arrest anyone who comes into the church.”
I said it with a smile, but the joke did not go over well. Yuzy and Zhanna quickly looked behind them and at the doors we had not opened along the right wall.
“Perhaps we should leave,” said Zhanna. “Maybe the police use this sort of place for interrogation. No one would suspect.”
Yuzy nodded. “Yes, let’s go.” She turned toward the front doors, but hesitated. She looked up into Ian’s face, bushy these days with a thick brown beard salted with silver. “Although I wish somebody would say something before we go.”
“What do you mean?” asked Ian.
“I mean. Something. Holy.”
Ian shook his head. “I don’t understand. You are Stalin’s right hand man at home. Someone who knows more than anyone else how corrupt religion can be. Yet you want your husband to say something sacred?”
“You. Or anyone.”
“I’m not the one. I won’t reject a religion like Communism just to embrace another like Catholicism or Orthodoxy.”
“Never mind religion. Never mind all the robes and rituals. Say something in this place that matters more than all the death and hate we have seen in the past five years.”
Ian shook his head.
Zhanna looked into our faces. I was not prepared to talk and Nykola dropped his eyes. Vasyl still stood staring at the icon, hands folded, apparently not even listening to our conversation.
“Suppose I tried to write a poem out loud,“ Zhanna suggested, “one that I wrote on the air with my voice?”
Yuzunia smiled. “That would be right. That is what I am looking for.”
“I’ll try. If it’s all right with everyone.”
Ian nodded and I shrugged. She closed her eyes and then opened them again. She began to walk about the church, only it became less a walk as she turned this way and that, gently, even spinning slowly to look at ceiling and walls and icon and candle flame. She slipped off her shoes to move about in her bare feet, some moments, it seemed to me, lighter than a breath, as if she were performing Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty, not on wooden floorboards, but on ice.
Not hell do I worship or the singers of death
I do not linger here for men who use words as guns
Or rituals as chains
I do not wait for those who love the flow of blood
As I love the flow of rivers
I do not pause to anticipate the arrival
Of those who purge bodies and intellects and imaginations
In whispers I ask for one who will ignite light
Where light has never been wanted
Where it has been extinguished and treated with contempt
Shut away without regret
In whispers I ask for one who will place things just so
And make the setting right
One who crafts a soul out of broken language
Out of a blood grief and a scream wind
Who gives us a heaven
Who only knew a brutal earth
She did this as a kind of soft chant I could barely hear, not without rhythm, but a chant which had its own fluidity, its own notes, river-like, smooth and curving and far-reaching. Yuzunia nodded and, without smiling, stretched out her hand to take Zhanna’s.
“You could have come from my own womb,” Yuzy said. “There is no difference.”
A door opened and we staggered back from our thoughts and wishes, from our swirling, eddying prayers, ready to run, even to fight, seeing men in uniforms and trenchcoats who filed from some inner room with shining knives and gleaming pistols in tight hands that were black-gloved. But it was a small man with a small beard in the flowing black garments of an Orthodox monastic: the riassa – the black cassock, and the klobuk – the hat and veil. A large cross gleamed in the middle of the darkness of his chest – he was a priest. He bowed.
“I never see anyone in here. I never hear prayer. I cannot say I have ever met a prima ballerina assoluta. I welcome you. I am Father Bodashka. This is my church, or God’s church. How may I bless you?”
Yuzunia was the first to recover. She bent her head in his direction. “We have come in out of the cold for a moment, Father. We did not think the doors would be open.”
“Always open. Even to the NKVD.”
“They come here?” asked Yuzy.
“Only to pray. Yes, even some of them pray.”
Vasyl came toward the priest and bowed from the waist. “Father bless,” he said.
“May the Lord bless you,” said the priest and made a sign of the Cross with his fingers and gave Vasyl his right hand. Vasyl kissed it. This seemed to cheer Yuzunia though it astonished me.
“Do you live here, Father?” she asked.
“My room is behind that door. I was getting ready for bed when I heard you come in. I listened to your talk and decided to get dressed in case I was able to serve you in some way. But, really, it is you who have served me. Your quiet. Your wondering. The young woman’s prayer and dance. Marvellous. There has not been so much human life packed into this church in years. The divine spark is always here, of course, but our Lord is most delighted when he can dwell among his creatures.” He nodded his head toward his bedroom door. “My cat, for instance. She keeps this holy place free of rats. Listen. I do not want you to go back out into the night without some sustenance. Have a small meal with me. After all, it is Christmas. Khrystos Rodyvsia.”
“Khrystos Rodyvsia,” we responded.
“But we cannot take your food,” protested Yuzunia. “We have plenty of our own. How much can you have?”
“No, no. It will be our little celebration of the Nativity. Humble, but significant in the eyes of God. My dear,” he smiled at Zhanna Yeva, “there is a rug in my room, we can spread it out for all, would you mind fetching it while I bring the food?”
Zhanna nodded. “I will come with you.”
He opened his door and a white cat sprang out as he and Zhanna went in. “Her name is Kalyna,” he said over his shoulder, “after the snowball berry. God knows she is spoiled. But she likes people.”
Kalyna eyed us all carefully and decided to remain crouched by the door for the time being. Zhanna came out, unrolling a blue and gold and silver carpet, Father Bodashka following her with a basket.
“I have a good cucumber, some bread and salt, no meat, I fear, but here is a can of black Mediterranean olives, still not opened.”
“Where on earth did you get the olives?” asked Yuzy.
“There is a policeman who comes often. I hear his confession. It was his gift.”
Yuzy ‘s face went dark. “And how much does he have to confess?”
The priest looked at her. “As much or little as any of us. Even for the NKVD there is hope.”
“You believe that?”
“Tell me what God’s borders are when it comes to the salvation of a human soul and I will respect them. Tonight, I know of none. Not for you, not for me, not for him. Isn’t our country’s name borderland? Here especially, among these fields and rivers and mountains, there are no limitations on God’s grace. Now,” he loosened his riassa, his cassock, and sat on the carpet Zhanna had laid down, “come and break bread with me, my friends. This will be our Sviata Vecheria, our Christmas Eve feast.”
So we sat and salted the bread and placed olives and cucumber slices on it, slices we cut with the priest’s small pocketknife, and he poured red wine as well which we drank from small glasses. The white cat made its way to Vasyl and sat by him.
“Ah, the old cat comes to the old man,” Vasyl grunted, stroking her along her back and tail.
“Not so old,” said Father Bodashka. “Only seven.”
“Ha. Fifty. A spring chicken. Well, cat, I have many years on you, but soon you will catch up, if Stalin does not catch us first.”
The priest took a long drink from his wine. “Some day, I pray, his seminary training will take over.”
“Maybe it already has,” mumbled Ian. “No reflection on you, Father.”
Father Bodashka shook his head and popped an olive into his mouth. “What people are not aware of is that he rebelled against the Georgian Orthodox seminary he received a scholarship to. He did not want Christian spirituality. Or Imperialist Russia. You see what he has done to both. What you read about now is a man who is haunted by his ghosts and his devils. Lenin and Marx have been unable to cure him. God knows they are equally helpless when it comes to curing Russia’s ills or Ukraine’s. Think if the Sermon on the Mount caught a hold of Joseph. What kind of a world would we live in then? The NKVD would be handing out food baskets to the poor and helping babushkas across the street, maybe even shopping for groceries for invalids. Yes, smile. I have little to do here but pray and dream beautiful dreams.”
“Speaking of dreams, Father,” Zhanna spoke up, “I truly am no prima ballerina assoluta. I don’t know of any dancer who is.”
“It seemed that way to me,” he said, looking at her and nodding. “It still does. The spirit matters in such things as much as the feet.”